Lots of people view fanfiction as a lesser form of literature, if they even see it as literature at all. Like other self-published works, most fanfiction has no quality gatekeepers. You have to dig harder to find the gems than you would if you browsed traditionally-published books. When you read any kind of book, it’s always a roll of the dice; you’re just playing it safer when you pick up something you know has run through layers of editors and other quality control.
That being said, you might be reading fanfiction without even realizing it. Some pieces of fanfiction are mainstream literature. Some are classic literature. Some might be among your favorite works. Here are two forms of fanfiction that are surprisingly socially acceptable:
1. Public Domain Characters
Some characters are in the public domain because no one ever owned a copyright on them. Characters from mythology (like Thor and Cupid), folk tales (like Aladdin and Robin Hood), and fairy tales (like Rumpelstiltskin and Baba Yaga) are all fair game. For instance, T.H. White’s 1958 novel The Once and Future King was loosely based on Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, which was published in 1485. Malory didn’t invent King Arthur, either. Arthurian legends stretch back centuries before that, and you can find stories about him in works such as the Mabinogion, which is a collection of Welsh stories compiled in the 12th – 13th centuries.
Other characters start off as copyrighted but become public domain later. Copyright law is different in different countries, but in most places, fictional characters become public domain after the author’s been dead a certain number of years. That means that any other author can feel free to use those characters in their own work. That’s why people can write about Dracula or Sherlock Holmes with impunity. (I’ve even read more than one book where Sherlock Holmes meets Dracula.) Lots of popular fiction draws on public domain characters, like Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein novels, which have versions of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation. Fans like Koontz get to play with or reimagine someone else’s work, but in cases like this, they get paid for it.
I couldn’t get through this post without mentioning William Shakespeare, one of the quintessential writers of the English language. Any scholar who’s studied him long enough will tell you that he borrowed lots of his ideas from other sources. That could probably merit a whole post of its own, but instead I’ll just mention a few examples: The Comedy of Errors was based on Plautus’s Latin play Menaechmi, Troilus and Cressida was inspired by a few works, especially Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “Troilus and Criseyde”, and there’s a lot more Greek and Roman mythology sprinkled through Shakespeare’s canon.
2. Historical Fiction
Writers don’t just confine themselves to fanfiction about fictional characters, either. Historical fiction falls into the category of fanfiction, too, if it includes real people in made-up situations (not to be confused with nonfiction accounts of people’s lives). If you’re a fan of a real person, living or dead, and you write fiction about them, that’s fanfiction.
Just like the category above, we have plenty of examples in recent fiction as well as classic literature. On the pop lit end of the spectrum, we have books including Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which is exactly what it says on the tin. There’s also a novel called Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer, in which Obama and Biden team up to fight crime. (I thought both of these books were kind of entertaining and went pretty quickly.)
To leap into the more serious end of the spectrum, you can read lots of books that use Biblical figures like Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, and the Lions of Judah series by Gilbert Morris.
And I’m sorry/not sorry, but we have to circle back to Shakespeare again. Because two of his most prominent patrons were Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, he had a whole slew of plays about their royal ancestry. This includes the plays about the English kings and also Macbeth, since the character Banquo was supposed to be an ancestor of King James. (Fun Fact: There’s a scene in Macbeth talking about how Banquo’s descendants will be kings. The play shows some of these kings, and then it shows Banquo’s ghost holding a mirror. That mirror was supposed to reflect King James in the audience.) Shakespeare didn’t limit himself to British royals, either. He also got material from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans for a whole series of plays based on those two societies, including my favorite Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar.
More on Fanfiction
We in the literary community should never dismiss fanfiction as an inferior form of expression. Lots of authors have created entertaining, creative, and well-written pieces in a variety of fandoms. Also, fanfiction serves as a writing gateway for lots of people. When you’re playing around in someone else’s world, it takes off a bit of the pressure, and you can just have fun with writing. Anything that encourages people to create should be encouraged, not discouraged.
I hope you feel the same way and that you might have a more generous view of fanfiction after reading this post, if you didn’t have one before. Let me know in the comments below if any of your favorite books involve repurposed public domain characters or historical figures.